By teaching English to underprivileged children, Vidyarambam Trust opens up a world of opportunities for them. The NGO’s intervention has also helped check dropout rates in government schools, says Sriya Narayanan
They are the children of poorly paid carpenters, electricians and daily wage labourers. Raised on the border of the poverty line, mostly in rural areas, these boys and girls have just one path to a better life – an education. But despite their talent and perseverance, this chance is compromised when they need to take an admission test or talk about themselves at a job interview. The bottleneck? Everything is in English.
“An urban child learns English as early as age two”, says Mr. V. Ranganathan, founder of the NGO Vidyarambam Trust, a non-profit organisation that provides free tuition and educational material to underprivileged children. “Until recently, government schools did not teach English at all. We’ve had teachers in these schools tell us that children are hesitant to even open their books. They don’t have the guts to attempt to read”. He believes that for the same reason, dropouts are common after Std. VIII or so, when English is abruptly introduced into their syllabus.
Vidyarambam’s strategy to put these children back on track involves logic that is simple, yet powerful – they recruit people who have completed Std XII and provide them with training on phonetic-based teaching of English (a far more effective method than conventional alphabet-based teaching), after which they are equipped to teach primary schoolchildren the basics of reading, writing and grammar. Older students (Std VI to IX) are taught by those with graduate degrees and the same training.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive. The Corporation of Chennai’s pilot project with Vidyarambam involved two schools in the city: Chennai High School in Kottur and Chennai Middle School, Gandhigramam Thirunmiyur. In just three months, their report cards showed real progress. Nearly 96% of the students obtained scores upwards of 82% in English. Following this result, the Joint Commissioner allotted 15 more schools to the NGO in an attempt to curb dropouts.
With no funding from the government, and a reliance on private donors, the Trust has successfully educated over 7 lakh children since it was founded in the year 2002. “This year, our programme is helping 2071 children in Chennai, 720 in Maraimalainagar and 20,400 across eight districts in rural India”, says Mr. Ranganathan who believes that the root of success is a solid primary education, and that the ages 4-14 are when these children need the support of society in laying the foundation for their futures. The NGO welcomes volunteers who can spare some time on weekdays to teach students, and donors who will support the nominal costs of educating a child in need – it costs only Rs. 3 a day to do so. The funds go towards teacher salaries (a majority of teachers are former beneficiaries of the Vidyarambam programme and receive stipends or incentives for their work) as well as free textbooks and notebooks.
“If a small NGO like us can do this, imagine how much the government can do,” says Mr. Ranganathan who strongly advocates that the government enlist teachers who have basic qualifications rather than a B.Ed degree for example, and benefit from the twin advantages of cost-effectiveness and availability of more teachers who can then be trained in modern teaching methods. He explains that his greatest reward is when a child in the programme gets the confidence to start reading a book, while referring to a dictionary for the difficult words. “We tell them to just try, and that it’s okay if they go wrong”, he says, adding that they eventually even surpass reading levels of more privileged children in private schools.
Educational institutions and workplaces in urban India are highly competitive and demand English literacy - for children from rural or low-income households, this is an unfair disadvantage, and dropping out of school renders them vulnerable to child labour and child marriage. However, thanks to institutions like Vidyarambam, these resilient young people receive the tools and motivation they desperately need to get ahead, and will have a fighting chance at a better future.
For further details, visit vidyarambam.org. Mr. Ranganathan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 044- 2446 5590.